India has passed a few health regulations in the last couple of years which should work as game changers from public health perspectives. A few worth mentioning include- Food Fortification and Trans Fats Ban Regulations besides Regulation for Safe Food and Balanced Diets for school children and Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations. All these possibly can make a remarkable contribution in curbing the high prevalence of NCDs (non-communicable diseases) in India and global countries.
In the backdrop of the rising concerns over overweight/obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular ailment in our country, it becomes imperative for consumers to be a stakeholder in deciding what to eat and what is to be avoided. This holds good for all age groups.
- Numbers never lie
A latest ICMR survey report of 2020 that can be taken as a representative of national trend data for Hypertension highlights that one in four Indians is overweight/obese. Also, about 43 per cent of Indians are overweight in urban areas and 18 per cent in rural areas. About 29 per cent have raised blood pressure as per the latest National Family Health Survey-5. In 16 of 22 States/Union Territories (UTs), obesity has grown in women. For men, this was observed in 19 out of 22 States/UTs. The proportion of overweight children has also increased in 20 out of 22 States/UTs.
Similarly, about 17 per cent male adult population and about 15 per cent female adult population are diabetic. This is dramatically high by any yardstick and needs to be controlled. While self-regulation is a must, knowing about what we are eating in terms of high salt, sugar or fats (HSSF) is equally important. This is the backdrop for the emergence of Front of Pack Warning Labels. These to help consumers know at a glance what not to buy or eat.
Indians are undeniably consuming more processed and ultra-processed foods, which includes packaged foods and fast foods. These ultra-processed foods are highly loaded with HSSF components and have fewer foods contributing to a ‘balanced diet’. These food products, apart from containing high quantities of salt, sugar, or fat, are also high in refined carbohydrates and chemicals but lack dietary fibre and protein. Worse, they are aggressively promoted and targeted at children.
This dietary shift is leading to overweight and obesity on one side and wasting, stunting, malnutrition on the other. This balancing can only be done with a consumer being aware of his/her consumption pattern, especially snacks, which can be an overload over all other regular meals assuming that breakfast, lunch, and dinner constitute major food intake.
Front of Pack Warning labels typically have colours and symbols/icons for ease of understanding. They reflect “warning” about excess nutrients concern which is in line with high sugar, salt, or fat contents. And mind that these nutrients are also considered addictive akin to nicotine in tobacco. It is because of the addictive properties, Indians consume double the amount of salt, sugar, and saturated fats than that is prescribed by WHO. FOPL has a science to back it.
Take the example of FSSAI’s own “green and red" dots depicting vegetarian and non-vegetarian food and have been successful in informing consumers. FSSAI also has recently made similar laws to depict fortification (the +F logo) in food and related to organic food (a green tick mark as Jaivik Bharat logo). Likewise, Certified Gluten-Free and Certified Vegan logos are a few more examples to add here.
To add up, recently IIPS Mumbai has conducted a study on a pan India level to identify warning symbols or markings on the labels which will best suit the Indian consumers/conditions. We are hoping it will set a benchmark.
If we analyse, we will see the very thought behind these logos and symbols is the base of FOPL labels. Such labels which also suggest symbol-based logos are easily recognizable by consumers. They can effortlessly know seeing these labels which are the harmful food items and to be taken with caution; thereby no calculations or thinking is required.
Globally many countries have already implemented the FOPL labelling system and studies have proved that they are effective in the reduction of consumption of HSSF foods. India is still trudging along in the FSSAI, industries, and civil societies consultation process in which Consumer VOICE is also a participant. It's a tedious process where industry feels that they will lose business and civil society feels that products can always be reformulated with reduced salt, sugar, and fat contents.
Yes, consumers taste buds will also have to change but it's better than suffering from non-communicable diseases than to indulge in such food habits. The FSSAI’s slogan “Thoda Kam" should remind us that as consumers, we need to be a part of the harm reduction process as mere regulations will not solve the problem.
(The author it the CEO of Consumer Voice. Views expressed are personal, and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine)